Enhancing Digital and Media Literacy to Counter Polarisation and Extremism

By Annukka Kurki and Veera Tuomala

Although they have been around since the first newspapers were printed, fake news, disinformation, misinformation, and conspiracy narratives seem to be more prominent in our everyday lives than ever before. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought on an onslaught of new conspiracies and the spread of dangerous misinformation has been extremely worrying. The aim of conspiracies is to polarise and increase tension between people, which is why it is vital to be able to separate fact from fiction.

According to various studies, individuals who believe in conspiracies are likely to believe not just one but be susceptible to many others as well. This can make them an opportune target for extremist narratives – indeed, violent extremists have exploited the chaos caused by the pandemic. Thus, developing skills that increase one’s capacity and ability to critically analyse media content and make informed decisions about what sources to trust, both online and offline, is of crucial importance. The significance of media and information literacy continues to be recognised – especially when it comes to digital environments. In 2014, UNESCO adopted the Paris Declaration on Media and Information Literacy (MIL), which calls for a renewed emphasis on MIL in digital environments, including ethical norms based on human rights.

While social media provides us with the possibility to connect with people all around the world, it has also become a breeding ground for extremist narratives and hate speech, which has only been fuelled by the infodemic brought on by the COVID-19 crisis. To counter this, it is easy to reason that regulation would be an effective solution. However, the constant evolution of both platforms and the spread of fake news makes it extremely difficult to target with regulation. The 2021 Media Literacy Index (MLI) recommends education over regulation in countering disinformation and building resilience to it. Much like a vaccine would protect against a disease, by gaining media and information literacy skills we can build resistance to fake news and post-truth.

As defined by the EU Expert Group on Media Literacy, the term includes “all the technical, cognitive, social, civic and creative capacities that allow a citizen to access, have a critical understanding of the media and interact with it”. Media literacy varies substantially across Europe, with Finland leading the MLI ranking, and North Macedonia coming in last place – the difference between these countries is considerable. Nonetheless, a wide variety of projects and policies relating to MIL education are implemented across Europe, with civil society actors at the forefront. These projects focus on skills such as creativity, critical thinking, intercultural dialogue, media use, participation, and interaction, and highlight the importance of a multi-sectoral, interdisciplinary approach to media and information literacy education.

However, the practice and research of media literacy education continues to focus on children and youth – whereas adults, especially older adults, receive much less attention. Although numerous studies have been conducted to determine the level of media literacy within different age groups, it is difficult to make such comparisons. This is because media literacy is made up of a highly context and age-dependent range of multifaceted competencies. It is thereby important to enhance the media literacy of all age groups and customise learning to fit the context and needs of each age group.

Finland has ranked at the top of the media literacy index for many years. The 2019 national media policy states that ”media literacy is currently held as an important element of civic competence that contributes to the possibilities of people and communities to live a good meaningful life”. It is well embedded in national strategies and curriculums, and receives both private and public funding. The theme is also often discussed and addressed in public discourse, and Finns’ high regard for freedom of speech and trust in the media provides support to media education efforts. Finland’s approach to media literacy is multidisciplinary, cross-sectoral and collaborative with a multitude of different actors; nongovernmental organisations, educational institutes, government, municipalities, and the private sector implementing it. Media literacy educators undergo rigorous training, which helps to ensure high quality education.

Online environments are changing the way we operate socially, culturally, technologically, and politically – they even have the potential to affect conflicts and democracies and have been a driver in extremist propaganda. Navigating the vast sea of information available to us can be overwhelming at the very least, which is why it is paramount that we educate and equip ourselves with the skills to build our resilience to misinformation. We can only do this by learning from each other and sharing our expertise across borders.

Veera Tuomala and Annukka Kurki work for Save the Children Finland, specialising in P/CVE work among youth and online radicalisation. More information on Veera and Annukka can be found in the ‘RAN practitioners’ section.

This article is republished with permission from the March 2022 edition of Spotlight magazine, ‘Digital Ecosystem. Spotlight is a publication from the European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network for RAN’s network of practitioners. Image credit: pexels.

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